Beyond his well-documented love for his BlackBerry, President Barack Obama seems to have extended his fondness for IT into the health-care field as well. The new stimulus package that the House passed includes $20 billion to help get health information technology off the ground; the Senate version might have even more money thrown into the problem.
The expense of setting up a digital record system has left many doctors still scribbling their notes on pen and paper. The necessary computers and programs can cost doctors tens of thousands of dollars. And while such a system benefits patients immediately, the long-term payoff for doctors comes from lower labor costs, which can take years to recoup.
To alleviate the barrier, the stimulus package includes money for grants and loans for doctors and hospitals to set up electronic medical records. A lower net cost for end users should drive sales for companies that provide the systems, including Quality Systems (Nasdaq: QSII ) , Allscripts-Misys Healthcare Solutions (Nasdaq: MDRX ) , Cerner (Nasdaq: CERN ) , and athenahealth (Nasdaq: ATHN ) .
And if that wasn't enough, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are also pushing for doctors to get online. The agency said it will pay an extra bonus to doctors who file their prescriptions electronically. All told, the combination of grants from the stimulus package and bonuses from CMMS could completely pay for the cost of setting up the system.
While the companies providing doctors with hardware and software will clearly benefit most from the stimulus package, some bystanders are also poised to benefit indirectly.
Many companies, from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) to Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) to UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH ) , have designed websites to store patients' complete medical records, combining records from different sources like doctors and pharmacies. While I think that's a fantastic idea, with almost endless benefits for users and providers alike, very few people will realistically take the time to enter their medical history into one of these databases. Whatever benefit the patients get from having their medical records stored in one place doesn't make up for the time and effort they'll need to decipher their doctor's chicken-scratch handwriting, and then figure out how to get it into the website.
Personally, even with a degree in biology and handwriting so illegible that I'm actually able to read what's on a prescription pad, I'm not willing to go through the effort. I doubt many others are, either.
But if the doctor is doing the heavy lifting and digitizing the results, then it's just a matter of getting the doctor's digital records into the database. In fact, Google Health already has an import function set up for patients of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic, among others. The more patients with digitized records, the more successful these websites will be.
Counting on Congress
The biggest risk in investing in health IT right now is that many people have apparently already gotten the same idea. The growth of health IT hasn't been a secret, and the companies mentioned above are currently beating the S&P 500 over the last three months -- several by 40-point margins. There's a remote possibility that the funds to pay for health IT upgrades never materialize, but an even bigger risk that the whole idea of digital medical records may have been overhyped.
Growth companies are capable of big returns, even in bear markets. Investing Fools just have to make sure they aren't overpaying for the privilege. Waiting until a quarter after the stimulus package kicks in might cost you some gains, but it's also likely to considerably lower your risk.